Brunt: Can he complete one last Hail Mary?

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Departing CFL commissioner Mark Cohon deserves praise. But he never did figure out how to make the Argos relevant.

Certain jobs are difficult to quit of your own volition with dignity intact. Dictator. Toronto Maple Leafs coach. The terms of disengagement are usually not of your choosing, and heads often wind up on pikes.

So in the list of Mark Cohon’s achievements as commissioner of the CFL, let’s start with the manner of his exit. He will depart the post sometime between the Grey Cup and the end of his contract next spring—it depends on whether a successor is hired in the interim—with his ever-present smile in place, with his mission mostly accomplished, deciding at 48 that it’s simply time to move on.

“In any leadership role,” he says, “a leader needs to know when to go.”

That doesn’t make him unique among those who have stood at the helm of the three-down game during the post–Jake Gaudaur years, but close enough. Cohon kept his masters happy in a business awkwardly split between private and public ownership, in which one dominant figure (at least in the eight-team configuration) controlled a quarter of the league. He was an effective front man, popular with the fans, who avoided scandal and embarrassment. (“I’m sorry I’ve made it boring for you guys,” he says.) And during Cohon’s tenure, some very important things got done.

The CFL returned to Ottawa this year, and aside from the awful Redblacks name and the predictably bad expansion-team performance on the field, the move has been a resounding success. They got the right owners, finally, led by a sharp local operator in Jeff Hunt. That, paired with a remade stadium, has led to full houses all season long.

A five-year, $40-million-a-season television deal with TSN has provided a significant degree of financial stability—not quite enough to lift every team into the black, but it’s a safety net.

In addition to Ottawa, there are new stadiums in Winnipeg and Hamilton, a revamped one in Vancouver and one in the planning stages in Saskatchewan. And the CFL’s new CBA, achieved earlier this year without a work stoppage, forced concessions from the players, improving every team’s bottom line.

Taken as a single entity, the CFL is a healthy, profitable business—though the miracle that is the Saskatchewan Roughriders is by far the biggest part of that. (If the Riders were a privately owned team, their value, based on cash in/cash out, would easily top $100 million.) The league’s strength in the Prairies is such that regional advertisers, with no presence east of the Manitoba-Ontario border, buy time on national broadcasts, knowing that nearly every Saskatchewanian will be tuning in.

Yet there is still that great big asterisk, the riddle that baffled Cohon just as it baffled his predecessors for the better part of 30 years: How do you make the CFL relevant in the largest market in the country?

The Toronto Argonauts are a disaster, a smoking crater of a franchise attracting almost no one to their games at the Rogers Centre. Though the league claims they are still drawing reasonable television audiences in the GTA, the Argos are all but absent from the local sports conversation. Credit some of that to David Braley, who has enjoyed playing Lady Bountiful, propping up both the Argonauts and the B.C. Lions (and, briefly, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats) when no one else was willing to pay the bills, but now appears to have abandoned marketing altogether while waiting for someone to offer him far more for the Argos than anyone else believes they’re worth.

Some (including Cohon) believe salvation would come with relocation, which is being forced on the team in any case after 2017, when the Rogers Centre will become a baseball-only stadium. There is only one place to go—BMO Field—but that is complicated by the need for an extra $10 million to allow the soccer stadium to accommodate a CFL playing surface. Braley could afford it, though he seems disinclined to ante up. The league might be able to afford it as well, but tithing other teams to prop up Toronto certainly wouldn’t be popular.

In the meantime, the CFL in Toronto withers on the vine, and Cohon understands the consequences.

“You can’t have a strong league without being in the core of the business community—and that’s Toronto,” he says, disagreeing with those who believe the CFL could continue to exist without a presence in the Big Smoke.

Fix that before walking off into the sunset, and Cohon would earn plenty of hosannas. “I would like to be able to hand it to the new commissioner tied up in a ribbon,” he says.

More likely, the new guy will inherit a problem that has defeated all of the old guys, the good and bad, the competent and incompetent. Solve it, and he’ll be able to write his own happy ending.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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